Capital and Ideology: Chapters 10-12

The first three chapters of Part III continue Piketty’s history of “inequality regimes,” moving us into the 20th century to what Piketty refers to as “the crisis of ownership societies” and the variety of ways this crisis was addressed. We’ve already established in earlier discussions that Piketty employs an idealist conception of history, and the limitations of his method. Furthermore, as Tom pointed out in his last post on chapters 7-9, Piketty seems to have quite a vague and somewhat contradictory conception of agency and determinism. This leads him to repeatedly insist, on the one hand, that the various historical “trajectories” that were taken did not express any underlying necessity. On the other hand, he talks of the limitations of these trajectories as if they were imposed by nature. We are supposed to believe, that is, that we are free to take any one of an infinite number of possible historical paths, but at the same time we mustn’t dare be so bold as to choose a mode of production other than capitalism, because that is just not possible.

Piketty’s philosophy of agency and determinism appears as a sort of caricature of the kind of dialectical one we actually need in order to solve the problems of global capitalism. To superficial observation there is unfortunately a fine line between dialectics and sophistry, and academics will often present the latter as an exercise in nuance and flexible thinking, using this as a license to avoid developing a coherent position. A truly dialectical conception of agency, however, is necessary in order to understand how we can move beyond Piketty’s assumptions, which force us to accept the inevitability of capitalism.

A dialectical conception of agency acknowledges the role played by necessity in the historical development of society. It asserts that human beings are free to choose the manner in which they produce indispensable goods and organize their social relations, but also that such production and organization, on the one hand, require a material basis and, on the other, in turn produce materially necessary consequences and internal contradictions, often independently of the will and the consciousness of individuals.

This is all very abstract, so let us examine the difference here a little more concretely.

Piketty seems to imagine that the turn-of-the-century world crisis of capitalism (he doesn’t use that phrase, but that is what it was) was, essentially, homogeneous in character, and that therefore the responses to it, i.e. the various national trajectories discussed, expressed the intentions of the masses in each country. In other words, the entire world was facing one big “crisis of ownership,” and each country, on the basis of a vague combination of cultural, political, and ideological factors, chose to pursue its own historical pathway. Any one of them could have just as well chosen an alternate course, had they simply had the political will to do so. Piketty emphasizes the importance of “political-ideological processes” in the succession of inequality regimes, while stating that

there is no cultural or civilizational essence that disposes some countries to equality and others to inequality . . . there are only conflictual sociopolitical trajectories in which different social groups and people of different sensibilities within each society attempt to develop coherent ideas of social justice based on their own experiences and the events they have witnessed (454).

The assumption here seems to be that the political and economic policies of the 20th century were for the most part the results of reasonable democratic debate among different tendencies, and Piketty imagines that this kind of practice can be replicated in order to deal with the current crisis. The problem is of course that this is not what occurred in the 20th century, and such a political project is not at all possible under capitalism, which is incompatible with actual democracy. The crisis of the interwar period and the political developments throughout the 20th century were rooted in the material conditions of the era of imperialism, and in the final analysis it was the balance of class forces within each country which determined—though not mechanically—these outcomes.

The immense destruction of the first world war placed the agenda of socialism on almost all of the capitalist world. The working classes of Russia, Germany, Italy, Spain, and many other powerful capitalist countries were moving in the direction of replacing the capitalist mode of production with a new mode of production, one of workers’ control. Throughout the 20th century, the repeated waves of worker-led factory occupations—in many cases involving workers taking direct control of the management of industry—as well as the outright revolutionary eruptions, demonstrate that what was occuring was not, as Piketty presents it, merely a vague struggle for greater equality, that is, for a greater share of surplus wealth. Rather it was a struggle for the creation of an entirely new mode of production, in which the production of material indispensable goods is democratically decided on not by a handful of wealthy capitalists, but by the workers themselves.

In the case of the social democracies, it was not the workers, i.e. the majority of the population, who made the conscious decision to maintain capitalism. Time and again it was the social-democratic leaders, and the emerging labor bureaucrats, which sought to channel the movements of the workers into the safe channels of bourgeois democracy and trade unionism. In some cases, such as in Italy and Germany in the interwar period, the workers were not so lucky, and instead of a “successful” collaboration between the workers and the bourgeoisie (i.e., instead of concessions gained in the form of social democracy), the bourgeoisie resorted to fascist methods to crush the working class organizations, slaughter their leaders, and continue their rule through open use of the violence of the RSA.

The main point here is that Piketty, in focusing only on inequality of wealth and access, and in presenting the class struggle as merely a struggle against such inequality, avoids the fundamental question of which class should be allowed to participate in the running of society, of who gets to make the decisions about what and how we ought to produce for human needs. This is the real question of agency in society.

A great deal of ink is spent on the later social democratic experiments of and debates around so-called “co-management” or “workers participation.” Once again we should emphasize that despite Piketty’s rhetoric about “transcending capitalism and private property,” these policies were implemented within a fully capitalist mode of production, which meant that they ended up mainly serving the interests of the bosses. Piketty’s touts, for instance, the positive impact of workers’ participation on productivity and hence on profits.

But the real reason why these policies did not and could not ultimately live up to their promise is that, in any society of classes, there must exist a ruling class and an oppressed and exploited class. As long as the bourgeoisie remains the ruling class, no form of workers’ “participation” can ever be stable. As long as the bourgeoisie owns the means of production of the whole world, the superficial “co-management” of workers within isolated firms—which in reality leaves the ultimate control of society in the hands of the capitalist class—does nothing to address the fundamental contradictions of capitalism or to provide the majority of human beings with a meaningful life.

As Ted Grant remarked when these policies were proposed by the Labour Party in Britain in the 1970’s: “[The proposals for workers participation are] based on an acceptance of the continued existence of capitalism. A real programme for workers’ control is a step towards a programme for the abolition of capitalism. For only that can guarantee that every aspect of the working lives of working people is not decided by a handful of plutocratic millionaires.” Under the system capitalism, the vast majority of the world is deprived of the basic human need to be an active and creative participant in the production of the indispensable goods, both biological and intellectual, which are required for human flourishing. Even if some limited form of workers’ co-management does lead to some gains for the workers, for example higher wages or increased bargaining power (though this has not always been the result), the problem remains of workers being deprived of the ability to democratically participate in decisions regarding the kind of society we ought to build overall. This kind of activity is an indispensable good which is impossible to provide under capitalism.

This problem is further illustrated in Piketty’s discussion of inequalities in education. The focus in this discussion is again narrowed to things like inequality of access and investment, and the value of education for social mobility. I would suggest that while these are important sociological problems, what is always left out of such discussions is the question of the very nature and purpose of the education system under capitalism. Piketty assumes that if we just decrease inequalities in access to the existing education system then everyone would be better off. But what if the ideological function of the education system under capitalism is precisely to reproduce a system in which a tiny minority rules society, while the majority toils in misery? What if the inequalities of the capitalist education system exist exactly for the purpose of forming the kinds of subjects necessary to reproduce unequal capitalist social relations? These kinds of questions do not factor into Piketty’s project, which in my view is its greatest limitation.

There is much more to be said about these chapters, and in fact I had written much more, but I decided to post just a few of the more troubling assumptions and conceptual problems that I thought were important to raise. I assume that everyone reading this will already understand that we are living in a completely different era from the post-WWII boom, and so the degree to which we can draw reformist policy conclusions based on post-WWII boom-era nostalgia is less than what Piketty probably imagines. So I need not dwell on that point.

There is one more important point that I want to briefly draw attention to, which I can’t go into very much, as it would really require an entire post of its own. I am referring to Piketty’s profoundly confused analysis of the Soviet experience. The historical misconceptions and outright laughable falsifications about Bolshevism and the October revolution, combined with the most superficial analysis imaginable of the world’s first workers’ state, made for truly painful reading. It is ironic that immediately after a detailed discussion of the experiments of workers’ participation in the capitalist context, Piketty leaves out the fact that the soviet system was the most democratic form of government in the history of human civilization, in which power, both political and economic, was in the hands of the vast majority of the population, of the working masses and peasants. The mistake Piketty makes is the same one that has been repeated a thousand times: the equivocation of Bolshevism and Stalinism. Piketty practically leaps immediately over from the revolutionary period itself all the way over to the regime of the Stalinist bureaucracy, which had nothing whatsoever in common with the system established by the Bolsheviks in the revolution, as if they were one and the same. He repeats the same old nonsense about a continuous “Soviet communism” lasting from 1917-1991—a figment of bourgeois imagination which has no basis in reality. In reality Stalinism was not a continuation of the revolution, but a triumph of counterrevolution.

It is absolutely impossible to understand the nature of the Soviet Union, without understanding the degeneration of the Russian revolution in the years following the death of Lenin and the growth of the Soviet bureaucracy under Stalin. Indeed, many of the criticisms Piketty makes of Stalinist policies, which he incorrectly refers to as “communist” policies, were made nearly a century ago by none other than Leon Trotsky, the leader of the Soviet Red Army and the fiercest and most resolute advocate of communism after Lenin’s death. The “catastrophic failure” of the Soviet Union was not a failure of communism, i.e. of workers’ democracy and ownership of the means of production under highly developed forces of production. I will just recommend Trotsky’s book The Revolution Betrayed, which was the first scientific analysis of the degeneration of the Russian revolution ever written. It explains what actually happened in Russia and the reasons for the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

With that obligatory rant, I will end my post for the week. These were long and dense chapters, and I’m quite interested in hearing what others got from it.

Leave a comment


  1. Great post, Chaim. There’s a lot to respond to, and so many issues raised in these chapters.

    I just want to respond briefly to one assumption Piketty makes that I found particularly troubling. If our goal is to see what kind of mistaken assumptions we need to overcome if we have any hope of moving toward socialism, this one is clearly so widely shared that I doubt most readers even saw it as a component of capitalist ideology.

    I’m talking about the assumption that to move toward a more egalitarian society we need to gain universal access to college degrees, and now even graduate degrees. Everyone seems to take is as a given that those with higher degrees just MUST make more money, and so equality depends on everyone getting a masters degree, or more.

    My position has always been that equality would depend on those doing the most unpleasant and least desirable jobs getting the most money. So college professors should make less that garbage men or roofers, because let’s face it teaching college is a much less onerous job. The idea that because only a few people have the natural intellectual capacity to do that job, so they should be paid more, is specious. First of all, people get such jobs because of their privileged class positions—they are never awarded based on actual intelligence or competence. Secondly, if we paid them less, we might have some teachers (or lawyers, doctors, scientists, etc.) who are doing the job because they find it rewarding and meaningful, and not because it is lucrative and requires little actual effort.

    The idea that everyone has the natural capacity for higher education is absurd. But those whose natural capacities are more suited to manual labor or clerical work are not therefore worth less as human beings. If you can’t pass the university entrance exam, you shouldn’t be doomed to a life of poverty and complete ignorance! On the other hand, if you happen to be intellectually gifted you should certainly have free access to higher education, but not necessarily a higher income. This assumption is part of the basic belief in “natural inequalities” necessary to capitalism.

    The fact that Piketty never even makes a single argument for people with more university degrees making more money should trouble us. He doesn’t think he needs to because he cannot imagine anyone questioning this. We need to make this “truth” less obvious.

  2. compatty

     /  July 16, 2020

    Thanks for your post, Chaim. I will check out the book recommendation because I have little understanding of the Bolshevik revolution. I’m behind in my reading, so your analysis of the chapters will be really helpful to me. Therefore, I can’t remark on the chapters themselves, but I’d like to echo the sentiments about educational inequality. As a college professor, I am constantly confronted by the neoliberal capitalist sentiments about education as a “return on investment” because access to college is very limited. Administrations talk about shrinking demographics of college age students, but it’s not just the demographics but cost of higher education that limits access and the fact that students are not particularly prepared for college work which limits what they are able to do with the education they receive. On the flip side, students readily admit that they are not in college to learn to anything, but rather to develop skills or techniques or a narrow frame of knowledge that will enable them to be “marketable” in the current economy. Job training is so linked to the idea of education America, and Piketty’s assumption the simply equalizing educational “inequality” will make the world a better place sounds like a pipe dream at best. Education has always served the interest of capitalism, and I actually think that there was a bright shiny moment about 40-50 years ago when greater access was possible; when the ability to get an quality education–maybe not at an elite school, but certainty a public school–was possible. The problem is that at least in America that possibility no longer exists because it did not really serve the needs of capital to have educated workers thinking about their conditions of existence and wondering why social mobility doesn’t, can’t, work. I am a product of that era. Yes, I am a college professor, but I know that I’m not supposed to be sitting in a room with people from Yale and Stanford. Am I as smart? Yes, of course. Do I do my job well? Yes, of course. But I am always conscious of that I grew up in a working-class household, and my life has been experienced differently from theirs (that difference BTW is never mentioned because its very difficult to talk about class relations in academic language of “inclusive diversity” especially if you are white. I can talk about gender of course, but never class). My parents wanted me to get an education for the very same reasons that Piketty claims–I’d be better off because I’d be paid higher in a nicer office job somewhere. And I do, but that was a very different time. That I actually learned something–that college and grad school was actually a transformative experience for me–is something that nobody took into consideration. And that’s the reason that higher education became “corporatized” at least in America. There’s lots of books written about this, but really if you’re in higher ed, the corporate language is everywhere. Maybe that’s not true in Europe, or maybe Piketty’s academic experience is just so rarified? The product produced is graduates who will then go into the workforce, usually as middle management or technicians. So, in intention as well as structure, universities are not separate from capitalism, but are part of the system and always have been. To have let in someone like me in as a short-lived social experiment of accessibility was for me, personally, beneficial; but I was supposed to be content with my social mobility, with my job, with my nice suburban life. And maybe I am, but it’s not enough, and I just happened to learn to think while being educated. Maybe an accident, but nonetheless the dangerous truth. That’s the greatest threat to the educational system at large. Now, it seems the trick os how to educate students to do jobs without getting students to think, or really know about anything. So, access to higher ed won’t solve anything, and it seems very naive for Piketty to think so. I could go on…

  3. Craig

     /  July 16, 2020

    One thing that I continue to question is what is the mechanism for the historical changes that have occured in these inequality societies. Is there some underlying force moving things along? Of course, Marx is clear that class struggle is what moves history and Piketty seems to make a case for this. Maybe unknowingly. Piketty doesn’t define what he means by ‘determinism’ and ‘agency’. Also, how can one have agency in the midst of determinism?

  4. Nicola

     /  July 17, 2020

    Craig, Tom and everyone

    Maybe here I can slide in a comment about the Joshua Clover book “Riot. Strike. Riot” that I read shortly after the protests started to get a more informed view on riots. I promised Tom (when I told him that I would stop commenting on Piketty for now while still reading the book and following the comments, and that I was reading the Clover book) I would give a short summary, because it changed my opinion on riots.

    Craig, Clover does not talk, of course, of the various transitions Piketty is talking about, or inequality as such, but tried in his book to bring some transparency on how social conflict and resistance (may) correspond with economic periods within capitalism.

    As for how transitions of different economic periods are marked by riots and strikes, in Clovers view a riot is not just a spontaneous outburst of rage that does not have any political agenda or logical position within the capitalist cycle of crisis, as he states in the introduction: “Often enough riot is understood to have no politics at all, a spasmodic irruption to be read symptomatically and perhaps granted a paternalistic dollop of sympathy.”
    He projects the idea of a quasi lawful process of social crisis within the capitalist system, depending on the dominant mode of economic production – production or circulation: in periods of production (or industry), worker struggle to set the price of labor power, at the source of production, downing tools, cordoning the factory floor etc. via the STRIKE as the tool of resistance;
    in periods of circulation the disposessed class struggles via RIOTS to set the price of market goods in the context of consumption, interrupting the commercial circulation.
    Applied to history, that would be first the RIOTS in the early era of circulation at the ports, where circulation was “regulated” by public riots, then STRIKE in factories with the rise of industrial production and “with the retreat of industrial production in the leading capitalist countries” RIOTS again in contemporary violent interruptions of the circulation of capital. Since the 1960’s and 70’s, riot became ‘riot prime’; both struggle to set prices, but `riot prime` relates differently to capital, police, race, state.

    I don`t know enough of history and economy to really verify this thesis myself, but from what I read in reviews of the book, neither Clover`s splitting of history in circulation/ production/ circulation (an idea borrowed by Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century/ Marx’s “general formula for capital,” M-C-M´ is divided into M-C for industry or production and C-M´ for a financial phase) nor assigning these periods to riot /strike/ riot is uncontradicted and unproblematic.

    I found it quite difficult to read and would have to read it at least one more time for further discussion or give exact answers.

  5. Craig

     /  July 21, 2020

    How does ideology come about if we are not consciously choosing? Is there an Ideology-Zero that was the first to just happen? Like a First Cause? Of course everything we do, say, think, believe is ideological.

  6. Patricia: “The Revolution Betrayed” really begins where the Bolshevik revolution ends. It’s more an analysis of the problems facing the Soviet Union following the successful seizure of power by the workers and the establishment of socialized forms of property. There are many interesting discussions also on the problem of creating new ideologies, particularly with respect to industry but also to education and culture. It’s the latter two that I find most interesting, but it is impossible to understand one without the other.

    Unfortunately, there haven’t been many good books written about the Bolshevik revolution itself, or on the building of the Bolshevik party prior to October. One suggestion might be John Reed’s “Ten Days That Shook the World.” I’m currently reading Alan Woods’ book “Bolshevism,” which is much a lot more detailed but very long (over 600 pages).

    I think you’re right that the “corporatization” of education is an especially American phenomenon, though I have a lot more to learn about what the education system is like in Europe. As someone who never experienced the so-called “golden age” of education (I’m only a recent college graduate), I’m also skeptical that any sort of reform can be accomplished here. Most of my professors actively discouraged students from thinking critically. Even the courses on “critical thinking” were just courses in how to think like a good capitalist subject. “Critical thinking” now just seems to me to mean pragmatic “problem-solving,” i.e. learning to think in ways that would serve the interests of capital.

    I’m not even optimistic that higher education, even if we were to increase access, would increase the number of workers who can be placed into management or technical roles. As Tom points out, first of all, there will always need to be a large section of workers to perform manual labor. Also, even those I know who majored in something that should get them higher-paying job (business, STEM, etc.) are having trouble finding decent work. This was the case even before the current crisis!

    Nicola: Thanks for your comment. That book seems very interesting. It does seem obvious that the increase in riot kinds of protests are partly a result of the decline in militant unions, the rise of the aristocratic labor bureaucracy, etc (although the latter has always existed to some degree). Riots certainly can have some political content. But there is no way to really organize them other than through the channels of the labor movement, if only because of the objective relationship which labor has to the means of production and the reproduction of capital. We are seeing quite a bit of labor activity in relation to the current upheaval, though the cowardice of the labor leadership has made these rare and generally short-lived.

    Craig: You ask some very important questions. I would try to avoid thinking of the class struggle as a “mechanism” of historical change, only because historical development does not occur mechanistically. There are many different factors involved, all in dialectical interaction, and the task of Marxist theory is to analyze these clearly as they actually occur. Of course, the balance of class forces is the decisive factor.

    To your second question, I don’t know that there was a “first ideology” that arose on its own in which intentions played no role. Presumably any kind of very primitive productive activity that preceded language would not be considered an ideology as such, not on Althusser’s definition of ideology anyway. I would say that the more productive activity becomes collective, once it requires the use of language and the reproduction of social relations, then it is ideological. Ideological in the sense that we could choose to produce in a different way. Not knowing that we may choose to produce in a different way, or erroneously believing that we cannot, doesn’t make our productive activity any less ideological. But perhaps someone better versed in Althusser can chime in on these questions.

  7. compatty

     /  July 26, 2020

    Chaim: I am skeptical too, but I have no choice but to believe that what I do for a living will have some small effect. To negate the negation. I do challenge my students to actually think and observe, to think logically, to understand that knowledge does actually exist. I have grown discouraged over the years because I feel that my finger is in the whole of a dam that’s breaking. And I don’t think that college is for everyone. But our public education systems have failed dramatically to produce anything other a babysitting service for the majority of Americans–witness the rhetoric in the media about opening schools so that their parents can go back to work. The only hope to inadvertently teach anything resembling thought has to happen in college now–although I would support overhauling the public education system or making higher ed free. The problem right now is that higher ed is a tool to “train” workers rather than educate them. I’m not sure that it was much different in the past, but I slipped through so maybe?

    Nicola: The book does sound interesting. I’ve been reviewing what EP Thompson termed the “moral economy” of the 18C in England for something I’m writing, and one of the issues that lead to the food riots in the late 18C/early 19C is the loss of access to grain–that is, food came a commodity that was no longer available to those who produced it but rather was considered “property” by the owners of that land. In brief this was an abrogation of labor’s traditional “rights” at a transitional period in the capitalization of agriculture in England. There were other “rights” taken away as well–rights to gleaning firewood or grazing sheep on common land because of the enclosure laws that lead to the privatizing of common land. So, rather than an ideology that leads to political action–at least at the beginning of the capitalist transition in the 18C in England–it seems to me that there is an economic/political loss that is felt materially in the lives of labor that the protesters want acknowledged and changed. At this point in time there were no unions, but there was a traditional network of artisans and small shopkeepers (whose livelihoods were threatened by industrialization) as well as agricultural laborers, that “sort of” loosely organized riots. Craig Calhoun talks about this as “popular radicalism,” but separates it from a “working-class consciousness” as Thompson (and perhaps Marx) would have it. My point is that I think that riots–and strikes–are inspired by political and/or economic loss. That could be developed into a “consciousness” or at least political resistance, but I think the primary goal of the participants was to “regulate” the existing market. Perhaps to resist it, but more likely to reinstate a prior stability. There’s lots of literature in this period (which is what I’m writing about) that resists capital, and the social changes taking place, but I’m not sure it’s “radical.” And it’s not primarily laborers who are writing about the deleterious effects on the social/economic fabric of England, but the aristocrats/gentry who are losing the battle against the capitalists–strange bedfellows. But labor riots are one place where the problems of transition become visible because of a “loss” that is often not apprehendable in other ways, and strikes (a later tool) as a way to demand the reinstitution of that loss. I’m not sure either of them are true means to systemic change of a capitalism. They can modify, but they seem to me to be a response to the more pernicious effects of economic volatility.

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